Con Brio was the title of the Cabrillo Festival of Contemporary Music concert on Friday, August 11, at the Santa Cruz Civic Auditorium. A common musical term, con brio can be translated as “with ebullience,” which is an apt characterization of the entire concert program, delivered with an abundance of brio by Cristian Măcelaru and the Festival Orchestra.
Now approaching age 80, William Bolcom is a true icon of American music, having created a large catalog of works in many genres, including operas, symphonies, chamber music, piano, and musical theater. His Twelve New Etudes for piano received a Pulitzer Prize in 1988. He describes his Symphony No. 9 as “my final statement in the symphonic form.” Whether influenced by the popular superstition—that there is a curse on attempting to compose a tenth symphony, or not—he seems to have said all he needs to at this point in his life. Having composed his Eighth Symphony in extra-large proportions, the challenge of the Ninth was to encapsulate many ideas in a concise manner. In fact, the work is in only one movement, under fifteen minutes in length. It was first performed in 2012 and received its West Coast Premiere at this concert.
Cristi and the orchestra created a magical mood at the opening in the ascending and descending lines beginning in the lowest instruments. This beguiling introduction led into the main body of the work, agitated and forward-moving. This symphony in miniature, and in Bolcom’s terse description, the piece follows a fast-slow-fast design. He has also said that his Ninth Symphony “is a somber piece,” and that he was feeling despair at the time of composing it. But we know that the composer has a sense of humor, which was obvious in the playful E-flat clarinet outbursts, played by John Schertle, suddenly erupting as if mocking the surrounding music.
Another major element was the haunting trumpet lines played by Andrew Gignac. The magic again descends while an epilog brings this colorful work to a close, as if vanishing into the ether.
Composer Gerald Barry (right) was on hand to hear the U.S. Premiere of his Piano Concerto of 2012, with pianist Jason Hardink as soloist. One of Ireland’s leading composers, Barry has composed operas, chamber music and solo piano music. New Music Scotland claims that he is “probably classical music’s most unashamed prankster,” thanks to the unpredictability of his music. That characteristic—of the unpredicted—is what gives the concerto a degree of charm, though it was often difficult to follow where the music was going. Hardink was convincing in his bold playing of the complex work. The extremely rapid forearm clusters were played precisely, bordering on the melodic. But consisting primarily of short and disconnected notes, the music lacks continuity. The heavy scoring of triple winds and brass gave the virtuoso players of the Cabrillo orchestra great opportunities to shine but also delivered too much information all at once.
The composition that suggested the title of the concert is Con Brio, composed by German clarinetist/conductor Jörg Widman. It’s a single-movement work completed in 2008 to precede a performance of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 7 at a Beethoven festival. The double winds and brass are what Beethoven would have used, with only timpani and no additional percussion. There are references to the Seventh, but no real quotes. It’s a cleverly constructed piece that exudes brio throughout. The piece explores sounds seldom used in a symphony orchestra; the wind and brass players slapped and rattled keys and made whistling wind sounds through mouthpieces, and the string players tapped their strings with the wood of their bows and made other unusual sounds. This added a playful and humorous element as unrestrained chuckles emerged from the audience.
Closing the program was Symphony No. 1, Ballet for Orchestra, by Cindy McTee, whose Double Play was featured on the first week of concerts. The subtitle of this 2008 work is a reference to the composer’s interest in music as movement. Her symphony is cast in the classical four-movement form. A perky three-note motive is the basis of the first and much of the fourth movements. Cristi kept all forces in a crisp and clear balance, interrupted by virtuoso passages for contrabassoon played by Steve Vacchi. The slow second movement, for strings only, is the longest of the four. Here, McTee creates a warm and peaceful environment of intimacy that draws in the listener. The short Waltz follows, with fleeting references to Ravel’s ravishing La Valse. The finale is another active movement, with an ending identical to that of the first movement, including another contrabassoon cadenza by Steve Vacchi.
The orchestra sounded marvelous, and appears clearly comfortable with Cristi. The question up front for many people, audience and orchestra alike, is how the transition to a new music director is going? For this listener and observer, there doesn’t seem to have been even a ripple in the process. As a former member of the Festival Orchestra, it would have been a pleasure to play under Cristi Măcelaru. The Festival is in for a good future.
The musicians of the Festival Orchestra travel from near and distant homes to play in Santa Cruz each summer. Some even came early this year to perform in a special recital for Festival donors prior to the orchestra schedule. Music director Cristi Măcelaru is a violinist, and, following welcoming remarks, played three Etudes by Astor Piazzolla for unaccompanied violin. For the occasion, principal bassist Edward Botsford offered Rhapsody by François Rabbath, a haunting work that employs double-stops—playing two notes at once—virtually during the entire piece. (Botsford had studied with the composer who dedicated the work to him.) Pianist Emily Wong, who has performed with the Festival Orchestra for several decades, offered a three-movement solo work by a Taiwanese composer. Concertmaster Justin Bruns led an ensemble for violin, viola, cello, oboe and piano by Michael Gandolfi, one of the Festival’s composers-in-residence. This was a tasty intro to Măcelaru’s future at Cabrillo.